CFN Preview 2013 - Miss State Bulldogs
MSU QB Tyler Russell & RB LaDarius Perkins
MSU QB Tyler Russell & RB LaDarius Perkins
Posted Jul 9, 2013 2013 Preview - Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Dan Mullen
5th year: 29-22
Ten Best Miss State Players
1. OG Gabe Jackson, Sr.
2. QB Tyler Russell, Sr.
3. LB Benardrick McKinney, Soph.
4. S Nickoe Whitley, Sr.
5. RB LaDarius Perkins, Sr.
6. DE Denico Autry, Jr.
7. DE Chris Jones, Fr.
8. TE Malcolm Johnson, Jr.
9. OT Blaine Clausell, Jr.
10. LB Deontae Skinner, Sr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 Oklahoma State (in Houston)
9/7 Alcorn State
9/14 at Auburn
9/21 Troy
10/5 LSU
10/12 Bowling Green
10/26 Kentucky
11/2 at South Carolina
11/9 at Texas A&M
11/16 Alabama
11/23 at Arkansas
11/30 Ole Miss
Northwestern sort of killed the argument.

Head meet wall when it comes to life in the SEC West, but it's what Mississippi State has to deal with in the nastiest division in college football. Not only is it a problem to have, arguably, the two best teams in the nation – Alabama and LSU – in the same division, but Texas A&M proved to be nastier than expected, Ole Miss is looking like a problem that has to be dealt with, and Auburn and Arkansas might have fixed the respective glitches with two new head coaches.

So what now?

It's not quite far for Bulldog fans to expect anything more out of Dan Mullen. Basically, Mississippi State has to deal with the harsh reality that it just can't punch with the heavyweights, and that showed last year rolling through the first seven games of the season. And then a funny thing happened – Cowbell had to deal with some real teams.

How many of those teams among the first seven victims ended up going to a bowl? Zip. Who was in the back half? Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU to kick things off – no shame in losing to those three – before beating Arkansas like a drum. Basically, MSU was 8-3 losing to the three teams it was supposed to get whacked by, but getting drubbed by archrival Ole Miss 41-24 set a bad, bad tone made worse by the ugly loss to – gulp – a Northwestern program known for being completely and totally inept in bowl games.

It's one thing to think that you'd rock in any other division in any other conference, but if you lose by 14 to Northwestern – fine, so the game got scary late and the Wildcats were actually good – after getting blown away by the Rebels, it's hot seat time for Mullen.

Fortunately, he has the team and the players in place to be more competitive with the high-end powers and the talent to hold serve against the mediocre teams.

Tyler Russell is growing into his own at quarterback, and while he needs receivers to throw to, he has a good veteran line to work behind and a good-looking stable of backs to hand off to. The special teams are solid, and the defense should be a bit better with just about everyone of note returning to the front seven and decent upside in the secondary to make up for the loss of Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.

The Bulldogs will go bowling again with at least six winnable games, and they'll be a tough out for the Alabamas and LSUs of the world, but they want to be part of the real fun – the BCS fun. It's a rough time to try doing that in this division in this conference, and while Mullen and his team might have some rough patches, there's nothing more dangerous than a good team being overlooked and disrespected.

Just ask Northwestern.

What to watch for on offense: Can the running game work against the better teams? No one ran on Alabama or LSU, but the Bulldogs failed to do anything on the ground against Texas A&M and Ole Miss, too. It wasn't a major coincidence that MSU went 0-4 when it failed to run for 100 yards and went 8-1, Northwestern the exception, when going over. The Bulldogs didn't hit the 100-yard mark four times in 2011, too – loss, loss, loss, loss. In fact, MSU is 0 for its last 15 in games it didn't hit 100 with the last win coming over Ole Miss in 2007 after running for just 81 yards. Unfortunately in that year, MSU ran for 10 yards against LSU, 45 against West Virginia and 80 against Arkansas, losing all three games. With four starters back up front and LaDarius Perking leading a good group of running backs, getting to the century mark shouldn't be a problem.

What to watch for on defense: More attacking and more of a push into the backfield. The Bulldogs have the ends and they have the athleticism on the front seven, but they didn't get the push or the big plays behind the line like they needed to with just 18 sacks and 64 tackles for loss – both painfully low compared to the rest of the SEC. The problems showed against some of the better conference teams as MSU's loaded secondary couldn't always hold up. Outside of the loss to Alabama, when the D came up with two or more sacks, the pass defense usually worked. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is now going to turn his dogs loose.

The team will be far better if … they don't throw any picks. This sort of goes hand-in-hand with the running game and its success, but when MSU had to push it a bit last season, there were problems. Quarterback Tyler Russell accounted for all ten of the team's picks, but just one of them came in the seven-game winning streak to start the season and the other nine all came in the five losses including two against Ole Miss and four against Northwestern. In fact, of the 17 turnovers, just five came in the eight wins.

The schedule: Can the Bulldogs beat anyone with a pulse? They couldn't last year, fattening up on the easy teams on the schedule and losing to the good ones, but they'll have a shot to make up for it right away in Houston against Oklahoma State. The rest of the first half of the season has to be great –starting SEC play at Auburn and needing to beat Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green and Kentucky - considering the second half is a bear.

Even with LSU to deal with early on, the wins need to pile up with a stretch of three road games in four weeks after hosting Kentucky. Getting the Wildcats from the East is a break, but going to South Carolina the next week makes up for it. That's followed up by a trip to Texas A&M, and home game against Alabama and a trip to Arkansas. A bowl game could come down to the Egg Bowl rivalry against Ole Miss.

Best offensive player: Senior OG Gabe Jackson. If he's not the top guard in the 2014 NFL Draft, he's in the team photo. The 6-4, 335-pound senior is the veteran anchor up front for a very good, very sound line that returns four starters highlighted by the left side. Blaine Clausell is a good left tackle to help out Jackson, but it's Jackson who'll be the one to work the running game around.

Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Benardrick McKinney. Safety Nickoe Whitley might turn out to be the star of the show, and the coaching staff would love nothing more than for ends Preston Smith and Denico Autry to be all-star terrors into the backfield, but it's the main at middle linebacker who'll be the steadying force. A sure-thing tackler, he made 14 stops against both Tennessee and Texas A&M and ten solo tackles against Texas A&M. He could stand to be more of a pass rusher, and he needs to be more disruptive, but he'll be the steady tone-setter for a strong front seven.

Key player to a successful season: Junior WR Jameon Lewis. The offensive line will be terrific, the running backs great, and Tyler Russell is a burgeoning star at quarterback, but nothing will work if the receivers don't produce. Losing go-to guy Chad Bumphis is a problem, and the departure of almost all his running mates will hurt, too. Lewis is an elite kickoff returner who has to bring his speed, quickness and creativity to the slow and become a steady target for Russell right away.

The season will be a success if … the Bulldogs win eight games with one of them coming against Alabama or LSU. 2007 – five games – is the last time MSU beat the Tide, while the streak of 13 straight losses to LSU is far, far worse. Basically, for the program to take any semblance of a step forward overall, it needs to beat one of the superstars. Mullen and the Bulldogs need the SEC street cred of a really, really big win.

Key game: August 31 vs. Oklahoma State. The neutral site game in Houston will be a major tone-setter for a Bulldog team trying to make a statement after ending last season on the two brutal down notes against Ole Miss and Northwestern. There might be several huge SEC games to deal with, and losing to Ole Miss again won't be acceptable, but considering Oklahoma State is being favored by some to win the Big 12 title, a win would be an excellent confidence boost. With Alcorn State, Auburn and Troy to follow, a win over the Cowboys would make a 4-0 start possible before getting a week off to prepare for LSU.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Punt Return Average: Mississippi State 7.4 yards – Opponents 0.5 yards
- Fumbles: Opponents 19 (lost 14) - Mississippi State 17 (lost 7)
- 4th Down Conversion: Opponents 11-of-15 (73%) - Mississippi State 13-of-21 (62%)

- 2013 Miss State Preview | 2013 Miss State Offense
- 2013 Miss State Defense | 2013 Miss State Depth Chart